A Reflection on the “Women In Environmental Leadership Panel”

Last night, I had the privilege of attending and live-tweeting the “Women In Environmental Leadership Panel” hosted by F&ES Dean Peter Crane’s class, “Environmental Leadership and Biography: Values, Decision Making and Impact in Environmental Management.” Justice Margaret Marshall, a former Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and Senior Fellow of the Yale Corporation, moderated the three-woman panel, which was constituted by Debra Moskovits, Vice President of Science and Education at the Field Museum in Chicago; Joyce Berry, Emeritus Dean at the Warner College of Natural Resources at Colorado State University; and Jackie Roberts ’89 M.E.M. ’89 M.B.A., the Chief Sustainability Officer at The Carlyle Group and former Executive for the Environmental Defense Fund.

Each woman shared personal stories about their individual journeys – such as who their role models are and how they navigated the balance of working and having families – as well as dispensed advice about succeeding as a woman in an environmental field. Joyce Berry had a long journey from the sunny Californian coast through the revolutionary women’s rights period of the 1960s and 70s, but found her passion for natural resources and the public’s attitudes regarding their conservation. She credits her mother as being her greatest role model, as she was the one who convinced the reluctant young Joyce to go to school. Though young and unsure at first as she followed her husband as he attended graduate school, Joyce became an expert in her own right and rose in academia at a time when positions were greatly dominated by men.

Debra Moskovits first inspired the audience with her tale of emigrating from Brazil to discover a passion for field biology at Barnard, and then garnered laughter as she recounted how befriending a crotchety Amazonian parrot led her to her first professorial mentor. After transferring to Princeton and spending a lot of time doing fieldwork in the Amazon, she wondered how to make a meaningful impact and then discovered the vital role that museums can have in translating science into conservation action. She also gave some indispensable advice about consensus building with indigenous tribes; when their spears face up, it’s just for show. But when they come in with their spears facing down, the threat is for real!

Jackie Roberts turned out to be an expert on balancing a leadership role at an environmental organization with having a family and healthy marriage. She recounted how she had to reinvent a new job for herself each time she would return to EDF from taking time off for children, because she would have to hire her replacement before she left. She noted that working for the government when you are young can give you great opportunities and much more responsibility right off the bat than working in the private sector. Jackie also stressed the importance of being a person who is known for getting things done in the workplace.

Justice Marshall was a deft moderator who kept the conversation flowing, often bringing in her own personal experience and recommendations. As a student who is two-thirds of the way through law school, her outlook on how to handle workplace interactions especially struck home for me. My favorite anecdote was about how she was walking by the cubicle of a male colleague who had only been out of law school for two years, and overheard him telling a client on the phone that in “his experience” something was unlikely to happen, but he would follow up with research. She noted that women are much more likely to be timid, to say, “I don’t know, but I will research” instead of the confident (or dare I say cocky?) way her colleague had responded. I thought back to my own experience this past summer, working in a city’s legal department, and realized that I have been doing exactly that. Right then and there, I resolved to better project the confidence I have in my legal research, and myself.

It is so incredibly important for women in the environmental field to have role models like these four leaders. These are strong women who often faced unclear life and career paths, and had to struggle to break new ground as a female in professions dominated by men. Today, because of the glass ceilings smashed by these women, it is even more realistic that the next generation, my generation, of women will continue to attain leadership roles. But we must never become complacent; many obstacles remain for women who seek to develop flourishing careers as well as a fulfilling life outside the workplace. In the words of Justice Marshall, “no barriers have ever been broken down by ‘somebody else’ doing it; you need to do it yourself.”